10 Innovations That Changed The Way We Ride
May 26, 2023
Every year manufacturers come out with new technology, but these are the innovations that really changed the way we ride
Riding styles have changed over the years. If you need proof of this, all you need to do is look at the evolution of riding gear in road racing as an example. We’ve gone from leather caps and aircraft pilot goggles to airbags and elbow sliders in a few decades. The way we ride has changed due to many factors, and we’re going to list ten of the most important innovations that influenced the way we ride. Of course, 10 is a very short list for something like this, and arguments can be made for many more from the innovations that we’ve left out, like the four-stroke engine, multi-cylinder engines, fuel injection, digital ignition, unitary engine-gearboxes, the twin-spar and trellis frames, metallurgy both for chassis and engine components, the heel and toe gear shifter, headlamp technology… the list goes on. Heck, we could make an argument for rider education as well, which has gotten to the point where you can choose a discipline and the level of instruction you want, making you a better rider in a very short time. What isn’t in question is that all these innovations have added safety and comfort to every ride that we have, which means our riding time is extended.
Related: 10 Motorcycle Safety Tips That Will Take Your Riding To The Next Level
Automotive engines were air cooled for a majority of their history. Of course, the little-known Lewis motorcycles had water cooled designs for motorcycle engines in the 1900s, but in the modern era it was Suzuki who brought the GT750’s water-cooled motor to the masses in the 70s. Water cooling offered consistent performance across a wide range of ambient temperatures, along with better emissions. The fact that the engine was going to run at a controlled temperature also meant that it could be built to tighter tolerances, increasing efficiency, output, and life, among other benefits. Early liquid cooled systems used the convection of the hot fluid to circulate the liquid, but they have since become powered by water pumps in a closed system for greater efficiency. The liquid is now coolant, which is water mixed with antifreeze. Liquid cooling is now taking on another leap with the advent of electric motorcycles, which have different requirements from internal combustion engines.
Pneumatic tires (ones filled with air, as opposed to solid tires) were invented in the 1840s and were installed on the world’s first production motorcycle by Hildebrand & Wolfmuller in the 1890s. However, the next big advancement took a mere 80 years, when tubeless tires made their debut thanks to cast alloy wheel rims. In less than ten years after the introduction of tubeless tires, radial tires were fitted to the Honda VF1000R for the European market, marking the last leap in tire technology for motorcycles. It hasn’t been stagnant since then, however. Today’s motorcycle tires are designed with purpose – a sportbike tire, touring bike tire and adv tire might all be tubeless radials with the same width, but they all have very different construction, compounds, and lives, thanks to their different purposes.
Related: 10 Best Motorcycle Tires on the Market
To understand why disc brakes were such a big deal, we need to understand what it is brakes actually do. The internal combustion engine converts heat into usable work in the form of propelling the motorcycle forward, and the brake does the opposite – it converts the momentum of the motorcycle (the kinetic energy) into heat via friction. Drum brakes sufficed for a while, but without adequate cooling they simply couldn’t transfer heat fast enough for the increasing performance of fast motorcycles. Enter the disc brake, where the entire disc is out in the air and therefore can be cooled much more effectively. Honda’s CB750 was the first production motorcycle to disc brakes at both ends. Cooling of the brake was further enhanced by developments like drilled, slotted, and petal discs that increased the disc’s surface area.
We’ve discussed how disc brakes were a giant step forward for braking. Anti-lock brakes were just as big a step, because it greatly reduced the odds of a rider falling under various circumstances when he hit the brakes. You see, with disc brakes another unsung development was the hydraulic system. This gave riders access to a lot more braking force at the discs or drums themselves, which helped a lot of the time, but on the limit of grip, whether at a racetrack or on a wet concrete freeway, it made it a little difficult to judge exactly how much braking force to apply at the lever. Enter ABS – whether you were an adventure tourer on dirt, or riding a cruiser on a cold fall morning, you now had a safety net that allowed you better odds to get to your destination unhurt.
Related: A Closer Look at MotoGP Brakes
The earliest forms of ‘suspension’ was seat foam. Then came girder forks for the front and sprung seats for the rear. Gradually these gave way to rear swinging arms with plunger suspension, and to designs we find recognizable today: twin rear shocks and the monoshock rear. The front evolved to leading link and trailing link type suspension, and then settled eventually on hydraulically damped telescopic front forks, which are most widely used today. The evolution continues, with tool-free remote adjustment and electronic adjustment available for certain motorcycles. Some models even offer self-leveling adjustment to account for different loads. We take suspension for granted but the kind of research and development that has gone into the systems of today is mind-boggling, and it translates to the holy grail of ride and handling: a comfortable ride with great grip all at the same time.
We could write reams about the history of the helmet by itself, but if you look at riding gear as a whole, it isn’t just the helmet that has evolved from its rubber-and-cork days. Today’s riding gear has gone from simple leather jackets and gloves to technical gear that has had a lot of research put into it. A one-piece racing suit is often made from kangaroo leather because it offers abrasion resistance that is a few times that of regular leather, meaning it can be lighter and more flexible. Helmets today have antifog inserts or pin locks, and vents that can be opened and closed to prevent fogging and help cooling. Jackets and pants made for touring have liners for the rain and cold. Touring boots have a liner that is both breathable as well as waterproof. We take these things for granted today, but they are all technology that has been developed over the decades and that makes every ride safer and more comfortable.
By-wire technology is a bit of a misnomer, because it means the absence of traditional cables. It is the ability to control something without a physical link between the input and the output. For example, if you replaced your throttle cable with a sensor and allowed a computer-controlled motor to open the throttle butterflies after reading the input from the sensor at the grip, that would be a by-wire system. These systems were first used on the Apollo Lunar Module, then in fighter aircraft, and it has trickled down to motorcycles. Riding modes with different power outputs, C-ABS systems on Honda Fireblades, automatic gear shifts that happen at the press of a button… these are all by-wire systems. The Yamaha YZF-R6 debuted a by-wire throttle on the R6 in 2006, and this remains the most common application of this tech across motorcycles, filtering down to motorcycles as affordable as the KTM 390 Duke. The EVs of today also employ a host of by-wire tech – the throttles on EVs don’t have an option!
Related: Essential Riding Gear for Beginners and Travelers
We’re using a catch-all term here. The first signs of connectivity in motorcycles was the ability for them to show navigation directions on the instrumentation directly, instead of you having to mount a separate device in your line of sight. Then you could record lean angles and lap times and display them on your phone. They then evolved the ability to handle phone calls and skip songs on your playlist without you having to take your hands off the handlebars. These days, your vehicle connectivity can show you live traffic and the nearest place to fill up, whether you need gas or electrons. It can also call emergency services automatically should you bin it. The word ‘connectivity’ is still evolving to mean vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity, and we’re sure AI will step in to make riding even safer.
No, this doesn’t have anything to do with a large flightless bird. An Inertial Measurement Unit is, simply put, a device that measures a bunch of parameters that can then help a vehicle’s computer decide what is best for the given conditions. Vehicles that use IMUs include satellites, missiles, UAVs, smartphones, smartwatches, and, no points for guessing, motorcycles. Today’s top-shelf motorcycles with cornering ABS and traction control have IMUs to thank. Wheelie control, rear lift mitigation, slide control, even cornering headlamps are all features that would not be possible without IMUs. Their benefits aren’t limited to track day aficionados only; all large adventure touring motorcycles use IMUs to great effect. The benefits are obvious any time you power slide your way through a turn, or brake while leaned over and don’t hit the deck.
Electricity is probably one of the two great inventions of mankind, along with the wheel. In the context of motorcycles, electric systems evolved from rudimentary systems that helped provide the spark for the ignition, to powering the lights, then electric starter motors, and then moved to the TFT color screens, Bluetooth connectivity, GPS systems, etc. However, it has now taken on a whole new meaning with the advent of EVs – electricity isn’t just a support system anymore, it is the source of energy for motive power. Electric vehicles are at least twice as efficient as their gas powered counterparts, and once we manage to bring the weight of batteries and electric motors down to levels acceptable by today’s standards, we will see a major shift in consumer attitude. Battery and electric motor tech are what will power the next big change in two wheeled mobility, and it is happening right now!
Charles has been an automotive journalist for a decade and a half, with experience across cars and bikes. He has worked with brands such as Autocar India, Overdrive Magazine, Motoring World (A Delhi Press publication), PowerDrift, and India's biggest online automotive research destinations, CarWale and BikeWale. He has also worked at the client end with brands such as TVS, Ford India, MG Motor, Jeep India, and Group Landmark. Along the way he has ridden and driven a wealth of cars and motorcycles in numerous locations, which gives him the experience and perspective necessary to make him an expert on the subject.